Engineers at Columbia University, New York, have reached a pinnacle in robotics inventions, inventing a mechanical arm capable of programming itself – even after it is malfunctioned. Professor Hod Lipson, who leads the Creative Machines lab, where the research was carried out, compared the robot arm to how a "newborn child" adapts to their environment and learns things on its own. The group of scientists claimed that this is the first time a robot has shown the ability to "imagine itself" and work out its purpose, figuring out how to operate without inbuilt mechanics. In the study, published in the journal Science Robotics, Prof Lipson said: "This is what a newborn child does in his crib, as it learns what it is.
"We conjecture that this advantage may have also been the evolutionary origin of self-awareness in humans.
"While our robot's ability to imagine itself is still crude compared to humans, we believe that this ability is on the path to machine self-awareness."
The mechanical arm was designed with no knowledge of physics, geometry or dynamics.
After spending around 35 hours moving at random, the mechanism was able to grasp intensive computing knowledge and figure out its capabilities.
Shortly after the mechanical arm was able to construct its own biomechanics, allowing it to cleverly pick up and drop objects.
The robot also performed other tasks such as writing using a marker.
The researchers printed a 3D-deformed part to simulate a damaged part, to see if the robot was able to detect the fault and adapt its mechanics.
The arm was able to detect the malfunction, and retrained its system to continue performing tasks despite the damaged part.
The authors have warned: "Self-awareness will lead to more resilient and adaptive systems, but also implies some loss of control.
"It's a powerful technology, but it should be handled with care."
However, some scientists have claimed that robots will never be able to develop their own intelligence as complex as humans.
Speaking at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, Dr Nigel Shadbolt, a professor of computer science at Oxford University, said: "Does AI threaten humanity? Certainly anything you see in Hollywood portrays it that way. Essentially, you do not want to get too close to them.
"But this is to misunderstand where the real problem lies. It is not artificial intelligence that should terrify you, it is natural stupidity."